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Avoiding Tyranny – It Takes Work

Sophomore year of college I took a history course on Ancient Rome.   I liked the professor and so every Tuesday night from 6:00 – 8:50 p.m. I sat in a classroom on the second floor of the Meredith building on the Drake campus.  Oh my God, it was so boring!  Somewhere in my basement is a notebook that has not been opened since the day I finished the final.  I got the A but after cramming for that last exam, I quickly forgot everything I learned.

Our Founders had better memories.  When the 55 delegates met in Philadelphia that hot summer in 1787 to reform the Articles of Confederation, they had a clear knowledge of Athenian democracy and ancient Roman republicanism in mind.  When the reform movement turned to a constitutional discussion, their knowledge of the classics became even more important.

The Founders purposefully created a republic rather than a democracy because the latter risked demagoguery and majority mob rule.  Republicanism or governance by the rule of law which protected minority rights was paramount to the Founders.  Direct democracy or majority rule was an anathema and dangerous to long-term stability.

Once ratified, however, it was up to subsequent generations of Americans to maintain the veracity and sanctity of the constitution and the republicanism (small ‘r’) that it represented.  In his short, yet consequential book “On Tyranny:  Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century,” Timothy Snyder notes that the United States has maintained our form of representative democracy primarily by luck.  It takes work and particularly now, it is critical that we all remain hypervigilant against the forces of tyranny.  Because yes, tyranny could happen here.  Let us not assume that the United States is unique to world history – we are not.  We are just as susceptible to tyrannical forces as those that came before us.  With modern media and current events, we may be even more so.  On Tyranny2

I have noted a few lessons from Mr. Snyder’s work.  He uses examples from the 20th century in which humanity did not follow this advice, with disastrous results.  It bears some attention given where we are in American politics.

Defend Institutions

I wrote about this in a post a few months ago.  In recent years, Americans have systematically criticized and defamed our most important institutions.  These institutions help preserve decency.  “Lyin’ Ted” and “Crooked Hillary” are just the beginning.  When we tear down the media, the courts, and the government we tear down the basic foundations of our representative system of governance.  This does not mean that we should accept grift and corruption; rather, we need to demand transparency and reform.  Make campaign finance reform or a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United a campaign issue.  Do not give up on institutions – demand their viability.   Stop referring to our nation’s capital as a swamp.  It is dangerous language.

Take Responsibility for the Face of the World

Symbols matter.

“The symbols of today enable the reality of tomorrow.  Notice the swastikas and other signs of hate.  Do not look away, and do not get used to them.  Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.”   Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny

The Nazi’s began their persecution of the Jews in a relatively benign way (as compared to later efforts).  Jewish shops were marked as such which gave the impression that they had no future.  Markings fed the ideas of ethnic superiority.  When it started, the Nazi’s had limited power and may have succumbed to organized and persistent popular resistance.

When you see hate speech, call it out.  It may be legal, but it should not be tolerated.  The lesson of Charlottesville is not a statue or the “loss of history.”  The lesson of Charlottesville is that Americans called out hate speech and its symbols.

Be Kind to Our Language

“Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does.  Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying.  Make an effort to separate yourself from the internet.  Read books.”   Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny

Ah – books.  What a novel idea!  Snyder talks about the words leaders use consistently and what they mean.  For example, Hitler used the word “people” to refer to some people and not others.  “Encounters” were struggles.  President Trump uses language in similar ways.  “Winning” and “Fake News” are common words used by this president.  He also has “tells.”  “Not many people know about this” or “Who knew it would be this difficult” means, “I did not know this piece of information.”

Do your best to avoid cliche’s and catch phrases.  If you must use them, know what they mean.  Here is an example:  ‘Fake news’ is an oxymoron.  If something is fake, then it is not news.  “News” implies that it is factual and noteworthy and therefore, cannot be fake.  If something is untrue, then it is just fiction.

Believe in Truth

“To abandon facts is to abandon freedon.  If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so.  If nothing is true, then all is spectacle.  The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lists.”   Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny

Does this really need further comment?  Snyder goes on to say that tyranny results when you “renounce the difference between what you hear and what is actually the case.”

Reading opinions and forming your own is natural and encouraged.  You are reading mine now.  But you have to recognize an opinion from a fact about an event that actually happened.  I am not presenting facts.  I am currently giving you my opinion about people who take positions without the benefit of facts – in many ways, they are the real threats to our national security.  (That is my opinion.  In another post, I will give facts to back up that opinion.  You can then choose to accept or reject my opinion or form your own.  See how it works)?

When conservative media outlets like FOX News rose to prominence, they did so by telling consumers that they could not trust any other outlet.  Think about that.  Other broadcasters and media sources used standard advertising technics to gain market share.  They hired attractive journalists and bought fancy equipment (remember CNN’s holograms)?  Conservative media told viewers that competitors lied and therefore could not be trusted.  And viewers believed it.

Now we live in a reality in which I get my news from reputable outlets that give me facts in one area and then analyze those facts in another.  Someone else my age could very well get information about the same subject from Breitbart or any one of the conservative outlets and get a completely different set of facts and in too many cases, fiction.  And consumers do not differentiate as they should – they are accepting fiction as facts and doing so because certain media outlets have convinced them that only they provide the truth.  That is so dangerous to representative democracy and the rule of law.  Worse, with a click of a button, we can share fiction disguised as “facts” to all of our followers.  It is a chain letter on steroids.

That brings me to my next point.  When did educated people stop recognizing flawed information (aka – lies) and stop verifying data points?  In the old days, verification of information was so much harder.  We had to make phone calls, stop at the library and use encyclopedias.  Then there were the card catalogs.  Today we have Google.  No excuses.  You can fact check anything in less than 30 seconds, depending on how fast you type.  My best friend once said, “Amy, you never have to wonder about anything ever again.  Just Google it.”  She was right.

Listen for Dangerous Words

“Be alert to the use of the words extremism and terrorism.  Be alive to the fatal notions of emergency and exception.  Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.”   Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny

We have always lived in dangerous times and today is no different.  The words we use matter.  I continue to be concerned with the vilification of Islam and the tendency to use acts of terror perpetrated by certain extremists to escalate xenophobic and nationalist behavior and acts.  Notice that violence against Muslims and terrorism perpetrated by white nationalists do not receive the same vehement blowback (from all levels of our government).   This climate and attitude, at least at a high level, is not much different from how Jews were vilified in the early days of Naziism.  Let’s remember history.

Tyrannical governments come to power – and stay in power – during extreme situations and under threats to national security.  When terrorists attacked New York and Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001, President Bush could have declared martial law.  It would have been difficult, but if there was ever to be a time for the executive to attempt consolidation of power, a massive terrorist attack would be it.  That did not happen.  And it did not happen because we have always – ALWAYS – had presidents committed to the rule of law.

Do we have that today?

Be a Patriot

“Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come.  They will need it.”   Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny

This is not rocket science or brain surgery.  Snyder starts by defining what patriotism is not.  He then walks through a litany of actions, talking points, and tweets by our current president.  I will let you read that on your own.  Instead, let me quote the author on his definition of what patriotism is:

“A patriot, by contract, wants the nation to live up to its ideals, which means asking us to be our best selves.  A patriot must be concerned with the real world, which is the only place where his country can be loved and sustained.  A patriot has universal values, standard by which he judges his nation, always wishing it well – and wishing that it would do better.” Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny

I would add those patriots are also “she’s.”  Patriots are not nationalists – not anymore. Patriots recognize that America is and has been part of a global community for nearly a century.  We are not alone on this globe, nor are we the most important.  Decisions we make within our borders have impacts around the world and yes, we must be responsible for those impacts.  Unilateralism and isolation have never been an option, nor has it been a sustained and successful foreign policy.

Be as courageous as you can

“If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.”  Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny

I am not a big fan of dying under a hail of bullet fire.  In fact, I really do not see myself making it through any type of military boot camp.  Let’s just be honest about that.

But I will not die under tyranny.  And I will not allow ignorance, bigotry and short-sighted ideology wreak havoc on my country and my planet.  I may lose friends and “followers,” but I will continue to seek and speak the truth.  And when I am mistaken, I will admit it.  If I change my mind or position, I will explain.

And finally, I will always encourage discussion.  I hope you will as well.


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